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20.03.2013

US DOE – Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear-Fuel and High-level Radioactive Waste

The Strategy published by US DOE in January 2013 presents the Administration’s response to the BRC report and serves as a statement of Administration policy regarding the importance of addressing...

The Strategy published by US DOE in January 2013 presents the Administration’s response to the BRC report and serves as a statement of Administration policy regarding the importance of addressing the disposition of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste and as the basis for discussions among the Administration, Congress and other stakeholders involved in disposing nuclear waste.

In 2010 the Secretary of the US Department of Energy (US DOE) chartered the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) to conduct a review and recommend a plan of action for the management and disposal of the nation’s used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. In 2012 BRC submitted their report (BRC report 2012) with the findings, conclusions and recommendations for consideration by the Administration and Congress, as well as interested state, tribal and local governments, other stakeholders, and the public.

The Strategy published by US DOE in January 2013 (Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste) presents the Administration’s response to the BRC report and serves as a statement of Administration policy regarding the importance of addressing the disposition of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste and as the basis for discussions among the Administration, Congress and other stakeholders involved in disposing nuclear waste. The Strategy shows agreement with many of the principle recommendations of the BRC and outlines actions that, with legislative authorization by Congress, will lead to a safe and responsible national nuclear waste management.

The Strategy adopts a phased, adaptive and consent-based approach to siting and implementing a management and disposal system. At its core, the Strategy endorses a waste management system consisting of a pilot interim storage facility; a large, full-scale interim storage facility and a geologic repository. 

With the appropriate authorizations from Congress, the Administration plans to implement a program over the next 10 years that:

  • Sites, designs and licenses, constructs and begins operations of a pilot interim storage facility by 2021 with an initial focus on accepting used nuclear fuel from shut-down reactors.
  • Advances towards the siting and licensing of a larger interim storage facility to be available by 2025 that will have sufficient capacity to provide flexibility in the waste management system and allows for acceptance of enough used nuclear fuel to reduce expected government liabilities.
  • Makes demonstrable programs on the siting and characterization of repository sites to facilitate the availability of a geologic repository by 2048.

Full implementation of this program will require legislation to enable the timely deployment of the Strategy. The legislation needed in the near term should permit or address the following activities over the next 10 years:

  • active engagement in a broad, national, consent-based  process to site pilot and full-scale interim storage facilities and site and characterize a geologic repository;
  • siting, design, licensing and commencement of operations at a pilot-scale storage facility with an initial focus on accepting used nuclear fuel from shut-down reactor sites;
  • progress on siting and licensing of a larger consolidated interim storage facility capable of providing system flexibility and an opportunity for more substantial progress in reducing government liabilities
  • development of transportation capabilities (personnel, process, equipment) to begin transportation of nuclear waste from shut-down reactors
  • reformation of the funding approach in ways that preserve the necessary role for ongoing discretionary appropriations and also provide additional funds as necessary, whether from reclassified fees or from mandatory appropriation from the NWF or both
  • establishment of a new organization to run the program, the structure and positioning of which balance greater autonomy with the need for continued and legislative branch oversight

In the meantime, the Administration, through US DOE, has initiated a number of activities within existing Congressional authorization and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982). Its Office of Fuel Cycle Technology is undertaking disposal-related research and development work in the following areas:

  • evaluation of direct disposal of existing storage containers used at utility sites in various geologic media
  • evaluation of various types of back-filled engineered barriers systems and materials
  • evaluating geologic media for the impacts on waste isolation
  • evaluating thermal management options for various geologic media
  • establishing cooperative agreements with international programs
  • developing a research and development plan for deep borehole disposal, consistent with BRC recommendations.

US DOE will continue with these activities, while the Administration and Congress work together on potential changes to the nuclear waste management program and the development of a path forward that maximizes the likelihood of success. When executed, the new program will provide near-term and long-term solutions for managing the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle, thereby resolving a longtime source of conflict in nuclear policy by providing safe, secure and permanent disposal.

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